Parenting Perspective: The Naughty Chair

May 7, 2010 7:12:37 AM PDT
Before you even have kids, you should be thinking about discipline. Not that there won't be plenty of those Hallmark Card moments (embraces around the birthday cake, romping through the autumn leaves, spiking the winning touchdown - well, okay, let's not get carried away). But seriously, the main, basic job you have as a parent, aside from providing food, clothes and shelter, is teaching your kids their limits, especially when they're young. Do this right, and both you and your children will enjoy a much better relationship and a much easier life together.

The one thing you can count on with kids is that they will test their limits. And by this, I really mean they'll test you. After all, as parents (or other primary caregivers), you are the police officers in their lives, the persons they look to daily for moral guidance. The only way for them to learn how far they can go is to try something new, and wait for your reaction. Then (and here's the really fun part), after you've clearly explained why their behavior is inappropriate, they'll do it again. And again - in my experience, the average 2-to-4-year-old, unchecked, is capable of challenging any given parental directive approximately 856,000 times before finally accepting it as fact. An example: "I'm not allowed to hit my kid brother in the nose with a wiffle ball". You'd be surprised by the number of parents I know who've pulled hairs from their skulls trying to get seemingly simple points like this settled in their youngsters' brains. Of course, this is largely due to the way a 2-to-4-year-old's brain works. Most of these brains will readily view hitting their kid brother with a wiffle ball as entirely different from, say, hitting them with a spatula. After all, the kid brain will reason: "Dad didn't say anything about a spatula!" The bottom line: prepare for this sort of reasoning in advance, and have a plan.

I don't remember who came up with the Naughty Chair idea. It was probably my mother. But unlike some advice from the ages that winds up being too dated to be practical, my wife and I found that this one's a real winner. Here's how it works: Whenever your child is being unreasonable about something (this can include everything from the wiffle ball-to-the-head infraction, to not eating their vegetables, or perhaps, throwing a temper tantrum in the middle the front yard to the extent that police are called because, my God, you must have done something to make the kid scream like that), you inform the child that they are "going to the naughty chair". The naughty chair can be any otherwise harmless chair, small enough for a kid to sit in and located in a safe place. We used to use one of the dining room chairs. You place the chair in a very un-fun part of an un-fun room. The corner of the dining room was perfect for us, because it was barren and there was nothing harmful like electrical cords nearby. You then place the child in the chair, tell them they have to stay there until they calm down and think about what they've done, and then, you walk into another room. This separation accomplishes two things. First, it minimizes the chances of the offending action being further debated (the naughty chair is pretty much the last straw, and there is no more debate allowed). Second, being stuck alone in the corner of an unexciting room, we've learned, is about the worst thing you can do to a kid, because from his or her perspective, there's nothing more wretched than being BORED. In 5 to 7 minutes, our kids were usually more than ready to negotiate their release. Before you grant that, however, you need to pull up a chair of your own, calmly go over what got them into this horrible predicament in the first place, and gently explain to the child that while you love them and respect their feelings, it's their job to respect the rules you as a parent or caregiver set down. You don't enjoy having to use the naughty chair, because you know they don't like it, and you don't enjoy making them unhappy. But you simply can't have your child not listening and not behaving appropriately. That's the house rule. Ask them if they understand. Our kids, at this point, were usually willing to utter at least a begrudging "yes". I didn't worry so much about whether it sounded 100% sincere. As long as they weren't being snotty about it, they were off the hook. Oh, and by the way, if they'll allow it, you should give them a big hug at this point and thank them for listening. If they don't want the hug, that's fine. Don't take it personally. You can give them a hug later that day or night, when they're feeling better.

By the way, if they get out of the chair or otherwise refuse to get with the program, change the punishment to "no dessert that night", or "no TV" (something they can't as easily control). But inform them that eventually, they will still have to do the "naughty chair" time. We got very little resistance, once other punishments were posed, and I don't remember having to act on the second threat often, if at all. Punishments involving dessert, TV, and play time with friends, became more valuable once the kids got into grade school.

The number of times a given child will require trips to the naughty chair during their early formative years will vary, depending on the child. One of my kids, a son, was sent there a grand total of once. He was a pretty easygoing kid, so I guess that figures. My daughter, on the other hand, was seated in the unholy throne something along the order of 89,023 times between the ages of two and four, according to popular family lore. She was one of those children who had, as they say, a lot of "spirit". But guess what? In the end, all three kids gave us far less trouble in ensuing years, and wound up generally agreeing that the Naughty Chair was a smart and effective tool for preschoolers. I also like the fact that it's an alternative to corporal punishment. I never believed in hitting kids. Maybe it works in the short-term, but I think it also promotes the idea of hitting, which is not only generally disagreeable, but can lead to problems later in life that aren't difficult to imagine. In the Naughty Chair, there was no violence, only a clear message about what is and isn't acceptable behavior (along with that wonderful chance to give a nice hug and some encouragement when their sentence was up). In our family, this approach made for happy kids.

Then they became teenagers. But that's a subject for another time.